How to ease IBS symptoms (without changing your diet)
If you’re one of the 20% of Brits who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), I can pretty much guarantee the first thing you’ve done to try and help is change your diet.
It makes sense, doesn't it? If your digestion has gone haywire, then the most obvious place to start is by looking at what you're putting into your body - and asking what it is that's making your digestion so unhappy.
Dairy, gluten, FODMAPs (foods that contain a type of carb that people with bowel disorders like IBS have trouble digesting)… they are all known to cause issues for people with tummy troubles, and eliminating them doesn’t always solve the problem. Each dietary change can take time to see if it’s helping, then if you get a flare-up or a problem, you're back to the drawing board to start all over again.
So where to start? I’ve seen people so stressed out by trying to tweak their diet to ease their symptoms that food becomes the enemy. It’s a vicious circle – when you’re not exactly sure which piece of your dinner is silently waiting to trigger a painful reaction somewhere in your digestive system, it’s not surprising many people with IBS start dreading every meal.
Keeping the focus on food can be difficult if you're feeding the family and doing the cooking. Having to work out how your own diet fits in with everyone else's can make you feel overwhelmed, and let's face it, eating out is a nightmare, so many people with IBS don't.
How stress affects the gut and IBS
The problem is, this stressful relationship with food only exacerbates symptoms. If you're stressed about food, your IBS is going to be worse no matter what you put in your body. This is because our brain and digestive system are connected (the gut-brain axis) via nerves, hormones and microbiome, so when our brain is stressed, symptoms will often manifest in the gut (and vice versa).
We know that how we feel emotionally is reflected in our gut. It's embedded in our everyday language: we talk of ‘gut reaction’, feeling ‘sick to our stomachs’ and of our ‘stomach being tied up in knots’. And when we are stressed, this communication of the gut-brain axis changes the hormonal messengers in the body, alters blood flow to the digestive tract and causes cramping. Even those without IBS can relate to the feelings of indigestion caused by an argument at the dinner table.
If you are suffering with IBS, it can often be more about what is happening with your gut-brain axis than what you are eating. In fact, people with IBS are often found to have a ‘hyperactive gut-brain axis’, according to Emeran Mayer, author of The Mind-Gut Connection.
So to find relief from IBS, rather than change your diet, it’s the way your brain and gut communicate that needs to change…
That’s where gut-directed hypnotherapy comes in. Treatment is designed to calm the digestive tract and change sensitivity, lowering gut sensations and discomfort in the body.
There is significant research that shows that this kind of hypnosis is both effective and results are long-lasting. Many studies have been done with results finding that IBS symptoms were reduced for 80-94% of sufferers who tried hypnotherapy. It has also proved highly impactful for those with severe IBS who haven’t responded to other treatments.
And while some might (wrongly) associate hypnosis with people pretending to be chickens on stage, it is, in fact, a treatment favoured by the UK’s leading IBS gastroenterologist, Professor Whorwell. A major contributor to the large body of research on Gut directed hypnosis for the treatment of IBS.
So why is gut-directed hypnotherapy so effective for IBS and how does it work?
Benefits of gut-directed hypnotherapy
Hypnosis works by changing the way the brain and gut talk to each other – it addresses the ‘miscommunication’ between the two, reduces the sensitivity and restores calmer, less reactive messaging between the brain and gut.
Gut-directed therapy succeeds where diet and medication can often fail. It’s been shown to reduce colonic symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and nausea, and also reduces a variety of non-colonic symptoms such as headaches, backache and insomnia.
If this weren’t impressive enough, there is an emotional benefit, too. Studies found that life satisfaction scores were higher in those using hypnosis for IBS.
Hypnotherapy has been found to be most effective with abdominal pain, cutting it by an average of half or more in many studies. You are simply retraining how your brain and gut communicate, so you can get on with the important job of living your life pain-free.